Kansai – The Mountains of Ice and Fire

A glimpse into Japan’s geography reveals an amazing contrast. Its thousands of islands, volcanoes and earthquakes are raw, brutal and unforgiving; its forests, mountain ranges and plains are however luxuriant, spectacular and flourishing. From the humid subtropical south to the snowy cold north, the archipelago raised a variety of trees, fruits and crops; the volcanoes powered hot springs all over the country which are internationally admired and regarded as an essence of youth; the surrounding seas provide abundant ocean resources. With Japan being one of the world’s most developed and industrialised countries, natural beauties that are not already woven into the rich cultural heritage (such as the cherry blossoms during the Hanami season or the Buddhist mountains) don’t often come under the spotlight and are easily overlooked by visitors.

Indeed, it wasn’t what initially drove me back to Kansai for the second time in 12 months. However, I had decided to go beyond the efficiency and convenience of Japanese big cities, and I have grown to appreciate its nature more and more. (And to be honest, even Japanese nature is efficient and convenient… or maybe it’s just Kansai.) Kansai in the month of February was cold and snowy. Untrained and travelling alone, I decided to leave skiing in Lake Biwa for the next time. Instead, I visited the mountains on my hiking shoes, and I wasn’t any less impressed. With the breathtaking scenery and sometimes a soothing, outdoor hot spring bath as a reward, they are unique experiences for both nature lovers and “utilitarian hikers” like myself.

An ephemeral wonder – Inner Mount Rokkō

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There is little information online for non-Japanese speakers, and I have only found it by inspecting every grid of Google Maps in search of unique sights, but the iced waterfall is a seasonal favourite for amateur and professional local hikers. It’s not hard to see why – the 40m high, 200° wide waterfall is frozen to clear ice and topped with fresh snow, showing an incredible depth of layers and details, almost engulfing its admirers, all coming from a narrow stream of water source. Every rock on which the stream falls and freezes, exists as if a tiny chamber is formed for each little Buddha to be worshiped. It attracts ice climbers as well, but it would have been a competition with nature on a molecular level as the ice’s density can vary within the two months in winter the waterfall is frozen. It is the main waterfall of the group of 48 waterfalls in Arima, and is probably the most impressive one in terms of size, form and difficulty to reach. In summer, the waterfall is only visible where the main rock break from the ground (on the right side of the photo), as other parts of the rock mountain would absorb the water and moss will grow.

Forgive me for not sharing the route to this ephemeral wonder here, as I wish not for it to become a popular tourist attraction. Another waterfall in the area, the “White Pebble Falls”, has become pebble-less because visitors to Arima’s onsens took them all away. Furthermore, I would not describe this as a casual hike you can go on with your city boots and string tote bag. It requires preparation and proper equipment, even for local hikers (I think especially so for Japanese hikers because they are so determined to be well prepared for any situation). If anyone is going to that area and really interested, I will be happy to share privately.

A sea of mountains – Mount Hiei 

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Mount Hiei (Hieizan 比叡山) lies on the border between Kyoto and Shiga Prefectures. Its highest point is at 848m, where sits the temple of Enryakuji (延暦寺). Enryakuji was founded in 788 (early Heian Period) by Saicho, who introduced Tendai Buddhism from China to Japan. (During the same period, another sect of Buddhism, Shingon, was introduced by Kukai, who founded Koyasan in 816.) Tendai became an important sect of Japanese Buddhism and its monks were often influential in politics. During the Azuchi-Momoyama Period, the Japanese daimyō (feudal lord) Oda Nobunaga 織田 信長 destroyed most of Enryakuji’s buildings and killed most of its inhabitants in 1571, in attempts to unify Japan and remove his political rivals. (The grave of Oda Nobunaga is erected on Koyasan.) Most of Enryakuji’s buildings today were rebuilt in the early Edo Period.

Besides the temple, Hieizan offers an easy and scenic hike that is worthy in itself. From Kyoto, we took the JR Kosei Line to Hieizan-Sakamoto Station, then the all-year-round Sakamoto Cable car (the other one is Eizan Cable Car but it doesn’t operate in winter). It was first opened in 1927 and is Japan’s longest cable car route, travelling 2km in 11 minutes passing forests and stone buddhas before expanding the passengers’ view to the lake and the mountain.

It suddenly snowed the day we climbed, and I had the absolute worst footwear to hike on a snow-covered mountain. But I brought with me an Aussie (who thank god got Timbs instead of flip flops that day) who made me a walking stick out of broken tree branches. With some push we managed to get to the top where we found a car park (which means car can drive up there …) and on the way down we found this open spot. It offered a 270 degree view of the mountain range and a metal chair where you can sit and think for hours without getting bored … There I took the photo which shows a sea of mountains.

A hedonistic pilgrimage – Kibune to Kurama 

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Kibune and Kurama are villages just 30mins north of Kyoto, one with the Kibune-jinja Shrine and the other with the Mountain temple of Kurama-dera. Connecting the two is a hiking path in the forest, taking approximately 30-40 minutes from one door to another. In the forest there was little wind, and the air is fresh and crisp. It certainly was relaxing and a perfect warm up before getting to Kurama Onsen for a outdoor hotspring bath.

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